Mark Perryman explains why the growing trend for players to get injured during pre-match warm-ups is a symptom of clubs' disregard for some basic principles of physical training
“The game is about glory. It’s about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” And with these words from Danny Blanchflower the Spurs Way was born. It’s a fine philosophy and can be used to justify the misdemeanours of many a flair player. It is certainly a lot more attractive than anything likely to be provided by the dull followers of work-rate and route one. But at its heart this philosophy has also too often been used to explain away football’s bewildering ignorance of the importance of physical fitness.
Gerry Francis has worked many a miracle at White Hart Lane, the first of which was introducing his famous sprint sessions on a Tuesday morning. But this is hardly revolutionary stuff.
A basic part of athletics training is known as interval running, timed sprints with a timed recovery time, with distances gradually increased and recovery time progressively reduced. For any professional football club not to have this as a basic part of their training programme is a disgrace, for their use to be complained about – however jovially – by the players is an insult to the fans who pay their wages.
It has been estimated that in a competitive football match a player will run between six and nine miles. If half that distance consists of fairly lengthy sprints up and down the length of the pitch, the player will run some three miles at full pace, the rest at a jog.
This means the basis of a player’s physical training would be remarkably similar to a bog standard club athlete training to run 10km road races off about 50 miles a week. A regime of early morning runs of 6 to 8 miles, a long run of 10-12 miles, hill sessions to strengthen the thighs plus interval training sessions of 10 x 400m, and 4 x 1 mile should be the staple of a footballer’s life.
Such a programme might sound quite heavy to the uninitiated; it’s in fact precisely what is followed by tens of thousands of amateur athletes all year round. It amounts to some 50 miles a week, fitted in before work. You might have to be a bit mad to do it, but it’s a hobby for many runners. But for a very lucky few professional footballers, such a programme could make the difference between winning and losing on a Saturday, not to mention the attraction of continuing to collect a rather hefty pay cheque. Unfortunately, physical fitness is too often portrayed as something to be played off against skill and flair, something the likes of Wimbledon might pride themselves on as they go for the pre-season photo shoot on an army assault course, but not quite the done thing for the effete skill merchants. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The physique of a typical club runner is not dissimilar to what one might consider a footballer should look like. But how many times have we resorted to chanting ‘you fat bastard’ to one of our erstwhile heroes after they return for the new season? In a sense, though, it would be unfair to blame the players for abusing their bodies when so few clubs employ nutritionists to instruct their playing staff – employed, after all, exclusively because of their physical attributes – on what they can or can’t eat or drink.
The next time some clown pops up at a post-match TV interview to trumpet how he’ll be sinking a few pints with the lads tonight, or a manager coyly explains away his charge’s drink-driving charge as boyish mischief, I’ll scream. No other sport would put up with such behaviour, and a professional, very well-paid sport that does so betrays the trust of its fans.
The trouble is, football doesn’t take the science of sport seriously. Complete with magic sponge and endless playing drills, the game seems trapped in an alleged ‘golden age’, blissfully unaware of the incredible advances made in almost every other sport that takes fitness, and crucially injury prevention, seriously. And yet football, far and away the best-resourced sport in Britain has scarcely made a single contribution to this work. This is testimony to the amateurish approach to a game where winning is worth millions.
Take the joke of a pre-game warm-up. Players rush around on a freezing cold day in T-shirt and shorts, a brilliant combination if you’re looking for a pulled muscle or hamstring. Through a huge investment in research, and the use of materials such as Gore-Tex, which reduce perspiration but maximise body warmth, running kits are now deisgned to aid performance rather than simply to look good.
It’s years since runners woke up to the fact that the only result of running a cross country race in shorts and vests will be a freezing cold body, boosted macho ratings in the changing room and quite possible an injury. So why do footballers largely decry gloves, long sleeves and, yes, thermal tights? They’re not proving anything other than some ill-conceived notion of being ’ard.
The players’ stretching exercises are rarely supervised, are often cursory at best, and then the manager complains about his injury list! The game begins and again it’s all bare flesh to prove our manliness instead of protecting million-pound muscles from a strain or pull that could sideline a player for weeks.
There’s not much that can be done about contact injuries, but muscle pulls and the like are overwhelmingly caused by sloppy preparation and the wrong clothing for winter games. The number of hamstring pulls and groin strains easily outstrip the number of similar injuries a runner would expect to suffer from.
This goes on season after season, with coaches and managers blissfully unaware of what could be done to prevent injuries which can easily cost a club a championship or cup run.
I’ll never forget the sight of Teddy Sheringham hobbling off the pitch, unaided, then walking the entire touchline in order to get to the changing room after being felled by Bryan Robson. He promptly reappeared to watch the rest of the game in the cold from the bench.
Sheringham took some six months to recover from that injury. I’ve seen too many such instances like this – except where the injury is very obviously severe, treatment is ill-advised and the player is virtually left to his own devices. Support, ice-packs, getting the player into the warm, all basic measures that are hardly attended to.
Fitness and injury prevention will aid the flair of a team, not diminish it. It’s also quite possible that fitness could broaden the tactical options available to the players. Why do so few clubs have full-backs who can carry out a long throw-in? No-one can be turned into a Steve Backley lookalike, but a few sessions on a weight machine instead of the proverbial afternoon rounds of golf would significantly lengthen a player’s throwing capacity.
Similarly, how come so many goalkeepers can neither throw or kick a ball with any length or accuracy? A combination of weight-training and practices drawn perhaps from javelin-throwing and rugby penalty-taking would work wonders. The trouble is, football remains insulated from the world of sport. It’s become so infatuated with its own capacity as a business that it won’t listen to what it could learn from others who take their sport a lot more seriously.
This is a record football should be ashamed of. It remains light years behind sports with far scarcer resources, and yet the rewards for getting it right are manifold. When will we read of a club that is pioneering new techniques for injury prevention, rather than a manager whinging on about the length of his injury list?
And will clubs ever consider themselves part of a wider sporting community at both an élite and general level, helping to fund sports scientists, nutrionists and health education workers? It is about time the academy of football meant a bit more than a misty old memory of West Ham stringing the odd pass together.
From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month